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Thursday, 12 September, 2002, 10:52 GMT 11:52 UK
Row clouds Biko anniversary
Poverty in South Africa
Biko fought for black empowerment

"They had to kill him to prolong the life of apartheid," Nelson Mandela has said of Steve Biko.

Biko, a leader of the black consciousness movement in South Africa, died of major head injuries in South African police custody 25 years ago on 12 September 1977.

Steve Biko seen in 1977 - the year he died
Biko was the leading voice of black consciousness (AFP)
His contribution to the black fight for freedom from apartheid is often placed as second only to that of former President Nelson Mandela.

The anniversary of his death at the hands of the apartheid government's police is being marked across South Africa but is also the cause of a row over what he means for South Africa today

Black empowerment

Steve Biko was never a member of the ANC and was active politically in the late 1960s and 1970s when the ANC was banned.

At the time young black activists moved away from the ANC's stress on non-racial ideology towards one that emphasised black empowerment and consciousness.

Biko was not a neutral, apolitical and mythical icon

The arguments today in South Africa are about whether the ANC has taken on board his ideas and become an heir to his struggle for black rights or whether it is just appropriating his name when it suits them.

ANC supporters and those who claim to be the heirs of black consciousness argue over whether he would have joined the ANC had he lived and whether he would have supported the policies of the ANC government.

Black consciousness

Born in the Eastern Cape of South Africa in December 1946, Steve Biko became a prominent anti-apartheid campaigner in the late 1960s while studying medicine.

A member of the non-racial National Union of South African Students, he decided that the union was too dominated by white liberals and founded the black South African Students' Organisation.

Anti-apartheid militants attend Biko's funeral
Biko: Seen as a martyr in the struggle against apartheid (AFP)

This stressed the need for black South Africans to take direct control of their own destinies.

Biko underlined the need for blacks to throw off mental as well as physical oppression but did not take the view that whites had no place in South Africa.

"No race possesses the monopoly of beauty, intelligence and force, and I wish there is room for all of us in South Africa," he wrote then.

But on a pessimistic note he added: "One wonders if the interests of blacks and whites in this country have not become so mutually exclusive as to remove the possibility of there being room for all of us".

Soweto uprising

Steve Biko was viewed with alarm by the South African apartheid government and in 1973 he became a "banned" person - being restricted to his home town of King William's Town.

But he continued to work for the consciousness movement - leading to his arrest four times between 1975 and 1977.

The uprising against the white government's discriminatory education system, which started in the Soweto township on 16 June 1976, left hundreds of black people dead across South Africa and was a watershed in the development of internal opposition to the regime.

The student movements which led the protests were strongly influenced by Steve Biko.

His arrest and violent death at the hands of the police brought an abrupt end to his life and political career when he was still just 30 years old.

But it also brought ever greater international condemnation down on the South African Government, especially after the Justice Minister, Jimmy Kruger, said that Biko's death "left me cold".

Cry Freedom

Steve Biko became an icon second only to Nelson Mandela in the struggle against apartheid - recognised around the world as a symbol of resistance and sacrifice.

Archbishop Tutu
Tutu's Truth Commission refused amnesty to his killers

Internationally, this was emphasised by the Hollywood film, Cry Freedom, based on Biko's life.

After the election of the ANC Government in 1994, the Truth and reconciliation Commission was set up under Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The Commission denied an amnesty to five policemen who admitted being involved in his death, though they have never been prosecuted.

In a tribute to him, Nelson Mandela wrote that just before his death, Steve Biko was arranging a secret meeting with ANC leaders and was killed to prevent him joining forces with them.

But the Azanian People's Organisation (Azapo), who still profess his black consciousness views, accuse the ANC of appropriating and corrupting his legacy.

"Biko was not a neutral, apolitical and mythical icon that today he is scandalously made out to be in order to legitimise a black majority government that is weak,", Azapo said, according to the French news agency AFP.

The black Sowetan newspaper takes the view that in South Africa today he would have argued that "more emphasis should be placed on African self-reliance".

So in South Africa the struggle continues for Steve Biko - but over his memory and legacy rather than against apartheid.

Should the victims get compensation?
See also:

19 Jun 02 | Africa
16 Jun 02 | Africa
27 Nov 00 | Africa
19 May 00 | From Our Own Correspondent
26 Dec 99 | Africa
16 Feb 99 | Truth and Reconciliation
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